Clothes shopping is conflicting task for parents, as are many moments one wouldn’t think would be. Go into any store and you will typically find the following: the ‘boy’ section: pants, flannel, tee shirts covered in rockets, dinosaurs, and trucks. You will never see a yellow (unless it is caution yellow), let alone a pink. The ‘girls’ side is painfully feminine; every single piece of clothing has a frilly collar, puffy shoulder sleeves, or an animal with elongated eyelashes and a bow. It is stereotyping and gendering up the ass with little wiggle room or challenge. There are articles upon articles on the gender stereotyping and how detrimental it is for children. And this was my most recent experience with that.
My two and a half year old son enjoys trucks, dinosaurs, and construction vehicles. So dressing him hasn’t been a challenge as he has essentially gone with the gender stereotype. This is not to say it is 100% due to how he is being raised. He has a baby doll and an Elsa wand right next to his Lego bricks and dump trucks. He enjoys putting on his sparkly heart shaped sunglasses just as much as his Elmo hat. I believe raising him with an equal amount of masculine, feminine, and neutral items is incredibly important, as I want him to embrace all parts of his personality, not only those that society believes he should have.
There have been recent encouraging developments on that movement, such as stores like Target removing their gender labels on toy aisles (although keeping them for clothing). And these 12 clothes companies who say no to gender stereotypes are not only possible, but flourishing. (I have started shopping at a few on the list and encourage any parents to do so as well.)
I went shopping recently at a major kids clothing store with my son and we pushed against the tide a bit, something I try to do as often as possible when raising an impressionable son. We spent some time looking around, me pulling a few items off the racks. One in particular was a pajama set, pale yellow with a bee on the shirt and black/yellow pants. It would be a neutral gender set if it weren’t for the bow on the neckline. Being an amateur beekeeper myself, I was drawn to it and showed it to my fellow shopping family member. Her response was “That’s cute. You know that is for a girl, right?” Now, she is by no means a traditionalist. She does not accept sexism in any form or traditional gender roles, especially around the house. She would always encourage us to express ourselves how ever we needed, as long as it did not put us into a weak role solely due to our gender. Growing up the only sport I was ever banned from trying out for was cheerleading, because you shouldn’t be on the sideline cheering for others to play when you could be the player yourself. So I am certain her response was made with the best intentions, to prevent embarrassment on my part, not to de-feminize my son. And yet her comment stung. It was a in-the-face reminder that even she would think twice before putting a bow on a boy. But there was more to come.
We were going along the sale section, which for the first time had them on the same rack, just boys on the left and girls on the right (verses on opposite sides of the store, far less likely to inquire). I went along, looking at the designs, and came to the end of the boys. And I stopped. And I thought. “Let’s see if there are any shirts in the girl section that a boy could wear.” I didn’t mean fit or femininity; I meant shirts that didn’t have “Sweet Girl” or “Favorite Daughter” on them. Shirts that could be worn by anyone, even if it wasn’t entirely gender neutral.
And I was pleasantly surprise. The majority of the shirts could be worn, despite many of them simply not being a style I would pick. And then the moment. N came over and started looking at the bottom rack with me. His hand darted in and started pulling on a pink long sleeve shirt. The front, in beautiful curvy font declared ‘I do believe in fairies’ and the back was covered in a pair of fairy wings. Would it be something I would pick? Maybe… I liked the Peter Pan reference. But something about it called to N, as his pulls increased against my protest, which amounted to “Just wait child! Let me check the size!” Thankfully, he had grabbed the right one for him and with that, he had his favorite shirt. And I do mean his favorite.
He carried that shirt around the entire store. He talked about it to my mother (she didn’t comment), he held it up against other clothes. He refused to give it to me, not even to scan it (I had to lift him up onto the counter). He only relented when he got a bag to put it in. So yes, I bought it for him. And luckily for him, an upcoming pre-school class theme of the day was Pink, which gave him the perfect opportunity to wear it. So this past week, he did.
And the response was exactly what I hoped it would be. The teachers welcomed each child, commenting on their lovely pink clothing if they were wearing any. One of them asked where he got the shirt and one confirmed he was indeed an only child, most likely subtexting that he would more likely borrowed the shirt from an old/young sister than own it himself, but certainly not accusatory. Two parents said almost the exact same thing, which was “Oh look (insert name of their child), N is wearing a pink shirt on pink day!” And that was that. There was no ostracizing, there were no side shade from other parents. My son wore a pink shirt and the traditionalist police didn’t come for us.
But this goes beyond my son liked a pink shirt and wore it to school. Already I am over-hearing children at age 3 say “boys don’t like ” or “girls should ”. So young and so impressionable. It is painfully obvious they are gathering this information from both their observations on the world and hearing it, be it through parents, family members, or the sweet sales clerk who didn’t think before saying how wearing that Ironman shirt made him a boys-boy.
I’m not saying we should rid ourselves of gender completely. It is completely normal for the human brain to want to categorize as a way of organization and understanding. But I wish we lived in a world where a boy could wear a pink shirt to school on pink day, or Tuesday, or everyday if he so chose and it wouldn’t garner any more attention than if he wore a Star Wars shirt. We are getting there.
On one hand, what we did that week isn’t that big of a deal; a parent bought her 2.5 year old son a pink shirt and he wore it to school. Yet I hope that this little action is the seed that creates a tree; that the children in that classroom saw my son wear pink, saw the parents and teachers non-reactions to it (which hopefully continued past my presence), and most importantly, implanted the idea that boys can wear fairy wings too if they so choose. And with enough seeds and trees like that, the future will consider choices like that normal, welcome, and not worth writing about.